Paulien Strijland is Yahoo!’s director of User Experience Design (UED) for Search and Marketplace and when you first meet her, you can tell that she’s creative. She is a striking figure at 6’1” and wears expressive, flowing outfits and chunky, eclectic jewelry. She speaks enthusiastically about UED and she always seems to be in the middle of something interesting.
But what Paulien brings to Yahoo! is a lot more than creative energy. She is a business-savvy pragmatist who values collaboration tempered with practicality. But it may be her penchant for diplomacy, more than her pragmatism, that helps her provide unique direction for Yahoo! UED.
Here’s what I know about UED: you can build the best engineered product around but if no one understands how to use it, then who cares? It’s like the new cell phone Paulien was fiddling with when we spoke, “this phone’s got at least 100 features,” she said. “But all I care about is getting to the two or three that I want. They’re randomly buried in with all the others so it’s hard to find them and get to them fast. That’s not good user design.”
I sat down with Paulien over coffee last week as she shared her thoughts on user design and the world beyond Yahoo!.
Q: You’ve been involved in user interface design for over ten years now. What changes have you seen in the direction of UED and how it’s perceived?
A: Years ago there was no formal training for UI (User Interface) design and it was a discipline that wasn’t really recognized or viewed as important. Most companies didn’t even have UI designers. These days, even the smallest organizations have an appreciation for the field. So you spend less time trying to explain how UED affects the bottom line and more time getting to the design.
On top of that, the numbers of people using computers has significantly increased. This means we’re now designing for new types of users with different perspectives and different levels of computer savvy. Our designs have to be easy enough for the novice to use but compelling enough for the power user.
Q: What’s the toughest aspect of your job?
A: Everyone has an opinion! Yahoo! is very collaborative and everyone is a user on some level or another. The toughest thing is understanding the value of hearing everyone’s feedback but knowing that everyone’s opinion can’t go into the product. If it did, we’d have a hodge-podge design that really served no ones purpose. You have to be very diplomatic.
You also have to remember that we’re not the typical user. Our teams do a lot more searches in more ways and with more comparing than regular users. So we may not see things the same way they do. When you understand that distinction, you’re able to really hear what users are telling you about the product and about the design. It comes down to striking a balance between what your original product design goals might have been and what you’ve learned from the people who are going to use it.
For example, before Yahoo! Local was in beta, we'd received lots of very positive user response about the "view results on map" feature. The problem was that once we'd made the beta public, users weren't even aware that a "view results on map" feature existed. We had designed a button for it and we thought it as very visible and very intuitive. In our minds, it was "right there." But users still weren't using it. They just weren't registering it visually.
We ended up sitting back down and seriously rethinking how we'd treat that feature and it was very different from our original design concepts. When Yahoo! Local came out of beta, we'd found a much more effective way to call it out.
Q: But how do you really know that it's effective? Maybe users still aren't using it.
A: Well, we can tell that it's a very used feature now. Our reports show that people are clicking on the button so they must be finding it. On top that, they're telling us themselves that they really like the feature in the feedback they send to us. So we know they're using it. I'd say the redesign worked.
Q: Okay, you mentioned balancing design goals with user needs. Here’s a leap in a different direction: how do you balance work and play? Assuming that you do!
A: I have an endless list of interests from playing games, doing art projects and hanging out with my kids, to hiking and camping and traveling to new places. You have to have a life outside of your work and you have to make a conscious effort to do the things that keep you well rounded and stimulate creativity. Sometimes it’s harder when you have a job that challenges you and that you love. You can get caught up in solving various puzzles and potentially neglect other areas of your life, but again the key is balance. So I guess I don’t have a magic answer. I work at it like everyone else.
Q: You started here in April after working at places like Apple and PayPal and NetFlip. Why Yahoo!? What brought you here?
A: In general, I think we have endless opportunities here at Yahoo! to fundamentally improve the way millions of people use the Web. That’s extremely exciting! In terms of UED, there’s a level of user insight that permeates everything at Yahoo!. I’m constantly impressed that the engineers and product managers and the marketers and producers have such an appreciation for the value of compelling UED. Their feedback is very insightful. You don’t find that everywhere.
Q: Apple in particular is known for their very clean and identifiable product design—I love the iPod mini design, for instance. How did your design perspective change after working with Steve Jobs and his team?
A: I actually don’t think it changed my design perspective per se. Steve understands the importance of good design and he is able to make things happen. For example, a lot of the ideas that ended up OS X were prototyped much earlier. Steve was instrumental in allowing the team to work out some of these ideas and actually bring them to market.
Q: Do you own an iPod and if so, what color and what kind of tunes are on your playlist?
A: I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t own an iPod... If I did, there would be a lot of different music on it for different moments and moods: lots of classical and melodious jazz to listen to at work or at home, and some good old 60’s/70’s and brazilian music for road trips.
Q: How is Yahoo!’s philosophy on site design and page layout different form others? Why do our pages seem more complex than others?
A: I actually think many of our new products are quite clean and beautiful. For example our new Local Search product. But it all depends on the purpose of the page or the product. You have to compare apples to apples.
Q: Okay. How about Google’s front page compared to Yahoo!’s front page?
A: Well again, the purposes of both are very different. Besides search, people come to Yahoo!’s front page to do everything from getting driving directions to finding stock prices to sending email. You have to figure a way to elegantly include all the things that people are trying to access on one page. Aesthetically, we have a very different challenge from sites like Google that essentially provide variations on one main product. With the creation of our new front page (now in beta) as well as other key pages on the site, you’ll see that we’re putting even more attention into balancing content with aesthetic.
Q: Do you have to have a certain aesthetic to do interface design?
A: Absolutely! You must have an incredible eye for detail and a great desire to build beautiful products.
Q: How does that aesthetic color how you see the world? Does it affect everything you do from the clothes you wear to the car you drive?
A: Yes, and the house I live in... It can sometimes be a little tough, because unfortunately that often means my taste is expensive–yet being Dutch I’m very frugal. For example, when I shop for a sofa I’ll fall in love with a $15,000 Italian design and it will take me a while to settle for something more reasonable.
Q: It sounds like you have a real artist’s sensibility. I’m sure you must draw or paint or something. Do you?
A: (laughs) Well, you’re right. I paint and I do sculpture and I love singing, when I can.
Q: I read that you performed with the San Jose Symphony. What was that like?
A: Oh that was great! I was in a choir that performed works by Beethoven, Mozart and Handel. It was amazing.
Q: Do you have anything you want to share with Yahoo! Search and UED enthusiasts before we wrap up?
A: Definitely. Tell everyone that we’re looking for fresh talent. I’m always on the look out for creative individuals who are passionate about Search and UED and—from the questions that came in from a few of the bloggers—I think some of them might fit the bill. So tell them to send in their resumes!
On that note (dutiful profiler that I am ;-)), if you’re interested, forward your resume to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well, I’ve learned a bit about Paulien and a lot about UED. Thank you to those who sent in questions for this interview—if this QA style works for you or if you’d like to see something different next time, just let me know. I’ll be sitting down with Tim Converse for my next interview (he’s engineering manager for search content classification) so feel free to funnel your questions for him my way.
‘Til next time…
Yahoo! Profiler (and In-Product Marketer)